Jacob Heilbrunn

Paul Ryan: Realist or Neocon?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The issue of Paul Ryan's foreign-policy views is starting to attract some attention among the pundit class. Andrew Sullivan asked yesterday, "Is Paul Ryan A Neocon?" It's a fair question. Whether it is a difficult one to answer is another matter.

To be sure, Ryan does not have any real foreign-policy record. But reasonable inferences can be made from several of his statements. Brett Stephens, for example, devoted his Wall Street Journal column yesterday to suggesting that Ryan issued nothing less than a "neocon manifesto" in a speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society. He noted that Ryan declared that a belief in "universal rights" leads inevitably to the rejection of what he termed "moral relativism." Ryan added, "It causes you to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests." It would be interesting to know exactly which society Ryan is alluding to—what right-wing or left-wing authoritarian country is "accommodating" itself to American interests? Does Ryan mean Pakistan—a grudging ally at best? Egypt? Or Saudi Arabia?

Sullivan also reprinted a tweet from Stephen Hayes that suggests "over past few months, Ryan has quietly been receiving foreign policy/national sec briefings from Elliott Abrams, Kim & Fred Kagan & others." Who might those "others" be? Someone like Danielle Pletka, who, Sullivan further indicates, apparently told the Daily Beast's Eli Lake that Ryan "understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps"?

How much of this justifies deeming Ryan a "neocon" may be questioned. But there is another, more compelling reason—apart from these Kremlinological tidbits—to surmise that Ryan is sympathetic to neocon views. It is this: the surprising thing would be if Ryan rejected neocon theology. The doctrine is dominant in the GOP. It offers a useful cudgel with which to bash Democrats as pussyfooting when it comes to national security. There is no conceivable incentive, in other words, for Ryan to embrace realist views on foreign affairs. It would cause him no end of grief and make Ryan an object of suspicion on the Right, which currently reveres him. So it is almost axiomatic that Ryan, who likely has no more than a passing familiarity with foreign-affairs issues, is inclined towards neoconservatism.

This distinguishes him from another young Republican vice-presidential candidate who was a realist and believed in engagement abroad. As a blog post at the Richard M. Nixon Foundation observes, Richard Nixon was only thirty-nine years old when Dwight Eisenhower tapped him as his running mate in 1952, and on paper Ryan might appear to have some things in common with Nixon. Ryan, too, is youthful and a hero to the Right. But Nixon had served in World War II, supported the Marshall Plan for Europe and helped unmask Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. Ryan, by contrast, has denounced Nixon in the form of stating, as the American Conservative's Daniel Larison reports, that the Obama administration's foreign policy and failure to emphasize human rights is, in Ryan's words, "Nixonian." He has also, Larison notes, decried better relations with Russia as tantamount to "appeasement"—the very charge hurled at Nixon when he pursued detente and arms-control with the Kremlin.

No doubt he will issue the sorts of thundering pronouncements that Romney has been issuing when he debates Vice President Joe Biden on October 11. Russia, China and Iran will all be bashed by Ryan as he exhorts Americans to export freedom abroad and ramp up military spending even as the country crumbles from within. Anyone looking for fresh ideas or something unorthodox on foreign affairs from the Romney-Ryan ticket should think again.

Image: monkeyz_uncle

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

The Neocon War Against Robert Zoellick

Jacob Heilbrunn

Jennifer Rubin is the Tiger Mom of the neocon movement. She exhorts her charges forward and reacts ferociously to anyone who threatens her brood. A few years ago, she was in the forefront of the chorus decrying President Obama's selection of Charles Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to head the National Intelligence Council. Freeman had made some sloppy statements about Israel and was vulnerable. A kind of wilding took place in which Freeman was depicted as an implacable anti-Semite. After the Obama administration remained silent, Freeman withdrew, and the neocons had claimed a fresh scalp.

Now Rubin and other conservatives have a new and more formidable target in their sights, one they can denounce but not dislodge. It is Robert Zoellick, the former head of the World Bank whom Mitt Romney has deputed to head his presidential campaign's foreign-affairs unit, the somewhat portentously named "Project Readiness." It seems, however, that neocons are not ready for Zoellick. Instead, he is being accused of delinquency on a number of foreign-affairs issues, including Israel. He is seen as a realist, a reincarnation of the old-establishment GOP that believes in diplomacy first.

In her Washington Post blog "Right Turn," Rubin says that "for foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema." So she proceeds to anathematize him. Rubin declares,

As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.

It's not easy to know where to begin here. Was Baker really "infamous" for his allegedly "anti-Israel stance"? Or was he simply trying to promote the peace process with the Palestinians by discouraging Israel from building further settlements in the West Bank? Then there are Rubin's canards about the Soviet Union. The notion that Zoellick was "weak on pressuring" the Soviet Union defies logic. The Kremlin essentially capitulated at the end of the Cold War, surrendering its entire East European empire as well as the Baltic States. Germany was reunited and remained a member of NATO. Zoellick was the point person negotiating the 2 + 4 agreement with the Soviet Union that led to the peaceful unification of Germany. Eventually, NATO even expanded eastward, to the discomfiture of the Kremlin. Would Rubin have demanded that Zoellick insist upon official stationing rights for an American antiballistic missile system around Moscow's perimeter?  And when it comes to China, Zoellick's sentiments are understandable. China has dialed down what Rubin deems its "aggressive conduct" in the past year. Whether it will prove friend or foe is an open question. But it makes no sense to antagonize it cavalierly. Zoellick is a friend of prudence, not adventurism.

But Rubin's complains are not isolated ones. As Foreign Policy's assiduous Josh Rogin reports, the Zoellick affair is creating convulsions in conservative circles. In his new post, Zoellick will be vetting the possible national-security members of a new Romney administration. The campaign says that he will not be determining policy. But of course Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of state in the George H. W. Bush administration, is no stranger to bare-knuckles political combat. He is surely aiming for a top position—secretary of state or defense secretary—and would most likely get it. And why shouldn't he? Zoellick has been a remarkably effective official, someone with political savvy and a keen understanding of international politics.

It is precisely Zoellick's negotiating prowess, however, that has some neocons worried. Rogin notes that neocons complain that,

"Bob Zoellick couldn't be more conservative in the branch of the GOP he represents," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's pro-China to the point of mania, he's an establishment guy, he's a trade-first guy. He's basically a George H.W. Bush, old-school Republican."

Well, yes. No Republican president—no prudent one, that is—would rely solely on the neocons for foreign-policy advice. Presidents tend to have different camps in their administrations. Ronald Reagan had both neocons and realists, and to the vexation of the neocons he reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev to sign sweeping arms-control treaties—treaties that they denounced as tantamount to appeasement. What's more, George H. W. Bush's reputation keeps rising. He wound down the Iraq War before America could get enmeshed in Baghdad. He ended the Cold War without firing a shot. As he mulls over his foreign-policy course, Mitt Romney could do worse than to consider his example. His selection of Zoellick suggests that he is. Good for Romney.

TopicsThe Presidency

Winston Churchill In America

Jacob Heilbrunn

Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. Uncontroversial as that statement may seem, there have always been historians, particularly in England, whether on the right, who object to World War II and the loss of empire, or on the left, who see him as an imperialist scoundrel, intent on knocking the great man from his pedestal. But in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Churchill, whose mother Jennie was a New Yorker, remains the subject of veneration as President Obama discovered when he returned a bust of the Churchill to the British embassy, only to face an outcry from the British prime minister's admirers on the American right. Most recently, a new Battle of Britain erupted when the White House tried to contradict Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer's contention that Obama had given Churchill the heave-ho. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said this was "patently false." Pfeiffer ended up issuing an apology to Krauthammer.

Whether or not Obama thinks the special relationship is really that special, the truth is that neocons have tried to hijack Churchill. They bristle at what they see as Obama's contumelious approach toward Churchill. Many venerate Churchill for his support for the Jews and Israel. But Churchill was always more of a realist than a crusader. He had no interest, for example, in the human rights of Indians. His aim was to hold the British Empire together, not to go about bestowing self-determination upon ethnic minorities. He wasn't an inflexible cold warrior, either. He wanted to see if a deal could be cut with Stalin's successors to unify Germany and end the cold war, only to have Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, responding to the pleas of West German chancellor Konrad Adeanuer, put the kibosh on any attempts at a detente with the Kremlin.

Now the Morgan Library in New York is staging an exhibition dedicated to Churchill. As Andrew Roberts reports in the Telegraph, it offers an illuminating glimpse into Churchill's prowess as a writer and journalist. The exhibit is called Churchill: the Power of Words. The title is an apt one. As the redoubtable Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who is completing a book on the fascination with Churchill among Americans, notes in the July 20 Times Literary Supplement, the old boy was indeed a journalist and author of, as he puts it, "great precocity and prolificity." In 1895, for example, just shy of his twenty-first birthday, Churchill traveled to Cuba to report on the rebellion against Spain on commission from the Daily Graphic. The star of the show, more often than not, was Churchill himself. In the World Crisis, for example, Churchill offered a history of World War I, which Arthur Balfour said was "Winston's brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe." It was all a warm-up for the main act, his years as the leader of England at its moment of greatest peril, when the Nazi war machine hurled its mighty Luftwaffe at the island nation, only to be repelled, both by the British air force and by Churchill's magnificent oratory, which did much to keep up morale on the home front.

Churchill relied heavily on assistants to work up his drafts. As David Reynolds explained in In Command of History, he had a team of writers who helped cook up the six-volume The Second World War. Churchill also worked out an arrangement that allowed him to avoid the confiscatory taxes that he would normally have owed to the British government. His history won him the Nobel Prize for literature, but its reliability may be doubted. But it is fun to read, which isn't something that can be said of many historical works. His works represent a decoction of Gibbon and Macaulay translated into slightly more modern form. He was the last Victorian.

Still, Churchill has always drawn censorious remarks. Evelyn Waugh said of his defense of his ancestor the Duke of Malborough, “It is a shifty barrister’s case not a work of literature.” That verdict is somewhat excessive. It is a work of literature masquerading as history, which is what makes Churchill a compelling writer. He was a literary exhibitionist. So it should hardly be surprising that visitors are flocking to see the new exhibition examining his feats. Roberts, himself a Tory historian, speculates

With Mitt Romney promising to ask for the Churchill bust to be returned to the Oval Office, from where it was unceremoniously expelled by President Obama in his first week in office, it is clear that the popularity and reputation of the Greatest Briton is alive and well in America. Is it because people crave courageous, eloquent leadership in difficult times? Or maybe it is a simple extension of the classic American Anglophilia we saw with the royal wedding and Jubilee and are seeing with the Olympics.

Might Obama reconsider his decision to oust Churchill from the White House if he wins a second term?

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsNorth America

Obama's October Surprise: Bombing Iran

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama could bomb Iran in late October to try and ensure that it does not develop nuclear weapons. A devastating strike would create an upsurge of patriotism in America and fully neutralize Mitt Romney's contention that Obama is a foreign-policy wimp. It could allow Obama to sweep to victory in November.

Will he do it?

One reason he might is that Mitt Romney is singlehandedly pushing the entire debate about Israel and Iran to the right. The parameters have changed markedly. As TNI editor Robert Merry and others have noted, Romney's efforts to ingratiate himself with Jewish donors and voters have prompted him to suspend any notion of an independent American foreign policy in the Middle East. Traditionally, the green or red light for military action has come from America, at least when it comes to actions that directly impinge upon American interests. Ronald Reagan, for instance, successfully demanded that Israel halt its attacks on Lebanon in 1983. Romney, by contrast, has effectively promised to give Israel a veto power over military action, indicating that he will do whatever Benjamin Netanyahu wants. As Romney observed in December, he would never, ever criticize Israel. Instead, he would get on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu and ask, "What would you like me to do?" So it's fair to say that Romney would outsource his foreign policy to Netanyahu when it comes to Israel and its enemies.

What's more, anyone who thinks that Romney is bluffing should think again. It's no accident that his senior adviser on the Middle East is Dan Senor, a hard-line neoconservative. As the New York Times notes today, Romney relies upon him for advice and frequently cites his book Start-Up Nation. Senor wasn't dissembling when he said in Israel that Romney was prepared to endorse an attack on Iran—he simply got a little ahead of the program.

Obama has not been far behind in giving Netanyahu close to carte blanche. But he has not gone as far as Romney in endorsing the threat that Iran should be precluded from having the capability of building a nuclear weapon. But as Netanyahu champs, or tries to give the impression of champing, at the bit to bomb Iran, Obama must be weighing whether or not he should call Netanyahu out on his threats. So far, the Obama administration has been doing everything in its power to dissuade Israel from speedy action. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's visit to Israel was another sign that the administration is trying to reassure Israel of its commitment to its security. But his emphasis was on sanctions:

The most effective way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is for the international community to be united, proving to Iran that it will only make itself less secure if it continues to try to pursue a nuclear weapon.

But as Romney calls for "any and all measures" to stop Iran, Obama surely could deflate his sails by launching a strike in October. If it worked, he would be hailed as a hero. The consequences of a strike wouldn't be felt for at least a few weeks—the nightmare scenario is that an oil shock would result in a quadrupling of oil prices, plunging the world into a new Great Depression. Enough time for Obama to sail back into office as a tough foreign-policy president. Given Obama's congenital caution and sobriety, he seems unlikely to follow such a course. But it should not be ruled out. The neocons may be closer to helping bring about an assault on Iran than even they realize. They've already captured Romney. But they may also be on the verge of capturing Obama. Their sustained campaign of pressure, in other words, may be more effective than anyone has acknowledged. For the fact is that Obama already has amply demonstrated his ruthlessness when it comes to confronting America's adversaries. If he were able to carry out regime change in Tehran, he might even start referring to himself as the new Decider.

Image: systemman

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Is Mitt Romney Right About the Middle East?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Mitt Romney routinely is accused of being an android, a carefully manufactured candidate, someone unable to express anything he actually believes. But it is becoming increasingly clear that it is when Romney expresses his beliefs that he gets into hot water. Take his comments about the Palestinians, which are creating a new furor.

Much of what Romney said in Israel was neocon boilerplate about Iran, the importance of defending the embattled Jewish state, Iran as our chief bogeyman and so on. But then Romney veered off course. Surrounded by Sheldon Adelson and his chums, Romney announced in Jerusalem that he has been pondering the discrepancy between Israeli economic success and Palestinian woes. Romney mused that he had read two books, one by Jared Diamond, which focuses on natural resources, and the other by David Landes, which focuses on culture. Romney came down firmly on the latter side. At the King David Hotel, Romney said,

If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it's this: Culture makes all the difference. As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.

The Palestinians went into overdrive to pillory Romney. He was being insensitive. According to the Los Angeles Times, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was none too pleased with Romney's foray into economic and political theory:

"Oh, my God, this man needs a lot of education," Erekat said in a telephone interview Monday. "What he said about the culture is racism." The income disparity is due to "Israeli occupation," Erekat added.

Is it? Are the Israelis solely to blame for the plight of the Palestinians? Or is Romney pointing to a larger problem, one that has afflicted the Arab world? It's surely not racist to point out, as Thomas Friedman repeatedly does, that there is something rotten in the Middle East, that kleptocratic tyrannies have held back their populations over the past century, that the Arab world remains far behind the West economically, despite its incredible oil wealth, and that Israel's existence has permitted Arab leaders to use it to deflect attention from their own grievous shortcomings, particularly when it comes to education and social programs. For his part, Landes, who taught economic history at Harvard, was trying to explain why the West had come out so far ahead of the rest—part of his effort was to refocus attention on Max Weber's theory of the Protestant work ethic. Does that ethic also prevail in, of all places, Israel?

Of course, Romney was trying to cozy up to his Jewish donors—though his remark about "providence" and Israel likely is a heartfelt expression of his own Mormon faith. His attempts to look statesmanlike failed. But then again, he's clearly a more interesting person than his detractors are willing to credit. His mistake, again and again, is to stray from the path of neatly packaged statements to ponder intriguing questions.

With everyone from Peggy Noonan to David Brooks complaining about how boring the 2012 election campaign has become, it's hardly surprising that the press would leap on anything that can be perceived as a gaffe. Part of this is Romney's own fault—he's refusing to take questions on much of his trip from the press corps. He would be better off confronting it directly. Then again, he might be tempted to say something provocative, which is why his campaign probably will continue to try to keep him in a cone of silence. But it isn't really working. It seems clear that, in contrast to the latest Newsweek cover branding Romney a wimp, he's anything but.  For all his stiffness, Romney is not politically correct. He may not have a beautiful mind, but it turns out that he likes to mix it up intellectually. What's so bad about that?

Image: Iowapolitics.com

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsIsrael

Mitt Romney's Cunning Foreign-Policy Speech

Jacob Heilbrunn

Mitt Romney is being attacked for not being more specific about his foreign-policy disagreements with President Obama in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday. Obama's campaign press spokesman Ben LaBolt complained, or pretended to complain, that

With all of the complex global challenges facing our nation today, Gov. Romney's much-hyped foreign policy speech once again is all bluster, offering no specific plans for our relations with any region of the world.

Well, yes. Isn't that the point? Why would Romney offer a specific plan, one that his detractors and opponents would pick apart?

Romney is not a visionary in the Reagan mold. He stands for nothing except his own personal advancement. His aim is to unseat Obama. All along, Romney's plan has been of a piece with his stance on his tax returns, which is to say that he intends to divulge as little as possible about his approach to domestic and foreign affairs. His campaign credo: "In an American century, we lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world." As simple as that.

So Romney will seek to remain a cipher. His aim has to be to allow discontent to swell about Obama. He then becomes the candidate that independent, swing voters turn to in disgust with Obama. To put it another way, Romney is not so much running for office as against Obama.

Accordingly, Romney's critique of Obama has been largely rhetorical, attempting to portray him as ashamed of America, a dubious figure who lacks the fortitude to create a new American Century, someone who is about to let the country slip into a fiscal and moral abyss with incalculable consequences for its standing abroad. Romney is attacking Obama for pusillanimity toward Iran, China and Iraq. He also is suggesting that, as he put it earlier this year, Obama threw Israel "under the bus" by proposing that negotiations with the Palestinians should center on the 1967 lines. As the New York Times reports today, Romney—or, to put it more precisely, the ubiquitous Mr. Adelson—hopes to peel off Jewish voters who may feel disaffected with Obama's touchy relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who enjoys a chorus of support among congressional Republicans, a grouping that has made no secret of its contempt for what its sees as Obama's vehemently anti-Israeli stance.

Where would all this end if Romney were to become president? One possibility is that he would indeed embrace the neoconservative advisers around him who are championing a military assault on Iran. In this instance, Romney's rhetoric would be more than just guff—he really is serious about returning to the George W. Bush years. Having experienced the ignominy of the final Bush years, when they were cast aside, the neocons would presumably act quickly and forcefully to reassert themselves.

Would Romney let them? The other interpretation is that much of what Romney is saying is flapdoodle, and he knows it. Romney has shown an elastic sense of the possible throughout his run for the presidency, making it clear that he will say and do anything to enter the White House. On Israel, it's fully apparent that he would give it carte blanche to avoid any peace negotiations and he would be hard-pressed indeed to prevent it from launching a strike on Tehran whenever it wishes. Nevertheless, while it stretches the imagination to think that Romney would govern in the realist mold—who would his advisers be?—it's unclear whether he would really give the neocons full rein. He could end up imperiling his presidency before it had even truly started.

Still, it is rather amazing that in 2012 the neocons would even be a serious, let alone the dominant, force in the GOP. They deserve an ample amount of credit for their own tactical flexibility and tenacity. But as the election season progresses, Romney is unlikely to talk much about foreign affairs, where Obama polls strongly. Absent a disaster abroad—and one is always possible in North Korea, Iran or elsewhere—Romney will take occasional swipes at Obama in foreign policy. But this time, it's the economy, stupid. And Willard Mitt Romney may be many things, but dumb is not one of them.

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Craven Silence on Munich at the Olympics

Jacob Heilbrunn

The Obama administration supports it. So does Mitt Romney. The "it" in question is a moment of silence for the Israeli victims of a Palestinian terrorist organization called Black September at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eleven members of the Israeli team were murdered. An online petition calling for a minute of silence also exists.

But IOC president Jacques Rogge sees it differently. He's adamantly resisting a formal moment of silence at the opening ceremony of the London Games this Friday: "We feel that the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident." When it comes to the Jews, the IOC curls into a fetal ball—as the Boston Globe points out, it has not resisted ceremonies for Bosnia or the victims of 9/11. But Munich is taboo.

Fear of Arab pressure, even a boycott? The desire to maintain an upbeat tone rather than acknowledge the dark past? Whatever the motive, and nothing has ever been too craven for the IOC in the past, Rogge tried to pacify his critics with a minute-long ceremony at the Olympic Village on Monday a part of something called the Olympic Truce, which, as the Washington Post reports, is a United Nations initiative that calls upon everyone to lay down their arms around the world during the Olympics. (Is Bashar Assad listening?)

The Olympics has a moral obligation to do better. It more than blotted its escutcheon with the 1936 games in Berlin, which the Nazis exploited to present a friendlier face to the world. The head of the American Olympic Committee was Avery Brundage who later became head of the IOC. Brundage successfully opposed an American boycott. Here is what the Holocaust Museum has to say about Brundage's stance:

He wrote in the AOC's pamphlet "Fair Play for American Athletes" that American athletes should not become involved in the present "Jew-Nazi altercation." As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a "Jewish-Communist conspiracy" to keep the United States out of the Games.

He thought Hitler was a great fellow and that the 1936 Olympics one of the greatest ever. The Brundage mindset was on display in 1972 as well, his last as IOC president. The games were suspended for thirty-six hours. "The Games must go on," chairman Brundage declared. So they did.

So the Olympics doesn't have a lot to live up to. It has a lot to live down. This year, the IOC isn't doing a very good job of it. It want to remain silent, in other words, about the importance of silence.

TopicsHistory RegionsIsrael

Michele Bachmann's Plot To Defame Huma Abedin

Jacob Heilbrunn

Michele Bachmann is at it again. She's been alleging that Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, may be an agent for the Muslim Brotherhood. She's joined by several Republican legislators who have signed and sent a letter to various inspectors general warning them, among other things, of the dangerous risks Clinton is running by employing Abedin (who is also the wife of former congressman Anthony Weiner).

Bachmann's evidence? An obscure article from 2002 contending that Abedin's father—who has been dead for several decades—once received financial assistance from a group with ties, the New York Times reports, to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, Senator John McCain, to widespread commendations, has condemned the smearing of Abedin, observing that she represents everything that is good about America. She's the child of immigrants who has risen by dint of her hard work to the highest councils of government. As McCain put it, she is "an honorable woman, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant."

Does the matter end there? No, it does not. These allegations were ventilated by Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, an outfit that has specialized in identifying what it sees as American-Muslim agents of influence who are engaging in sedition. This year, it released a series called "The Muslim Brotherhood In America: The Enemy Within" that it terms a course in ten parts presented by Gaffney. It says, "America faces in addition to the threat of violent jihad another, even more toxic danger—a stealthy and pre-violent form of warfare aimed at destroying our constitutional form of democratic government and free society. The Muslim Brotherhood is the prime-mover behind this seditious campaign, which it calls 'civilization jihad.'" Gaffney sees President Obama as a nefarious exponent of Islamic law, subverting the American military. In a July 9 op-ed in the Washington Times, he wrote that American soldiers

are ordered to honor their hosts in visits with local elders by consuming foods offered, despite the fact that doing so can subject them to lifelong affliction by parasites and diseases. They must observe rules of engagement that restrict use of their firearms and deny them air cover and artillery support in circumstances where it can mean the difference between living and dying. Worse yet, our troops are seen by the enemy in these and other ways to be submitting to the latter’s doctrine of Shariah. According to that supremacist code, its adherents are compelled, when confronted with evidence they are winning, to redouble their efforts to make us feel subdued.

The letter sent by Bachmann and her confreres refers to Gaffney's work as pointing to a dire threat. The current character assassination of Abedin is remarkably similar to the venomous assault that Gaffney has also mounted against Suhail Khan, a member of the board of the American Conservative Union and a former George W. Bush administration official. The accusation was the same almost down to the letter: Khan's father, we were told, was a bad egg, someone who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Along with Grover Norquist, the allegation continued, the son, Suhail, was trying to infiltrate and subvert the conservative movement. Both accusations are too ridiculous to even merit refutation.

Now conspiracy thinking is focusing on Abedin. Here is what Gaffney writes on his website:

While it cannot be confirmed at this writing, presumably Mrs. Clinton was accompanied on her travels as usual—particularly in the Middle East—by her Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin. That would be all the more probable given that Ms. Abedin has myriad family ties to the Brotherhood. For example, her mother, Saleha Abedin, is a leader of the organization's secretive women's auxiliary, the Muslim Sisterhood, in which she serves along with Mohammed Morsi's wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud.

The presence of an individual with such associations in the seniormost ranks of the State Department at a moment when the Obama administration is assiduously "engaging" with the Muslim Brotherhood has raised concerns on Capitol Hill. To their credit, five legislators, led by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, have asked for a formal inquiry into the role Ms. Abedin and perhaps others have played in the adoption of problematic policies favorable to the Islamists.

The idea, in other words, is that Obama, himself a not-so-covert Muslim, is trying to install his Muslim buddies into power in Egypt. And Abedin is part of the conspiracy. Already Gaffney's wild contentions about an allegedly pro-Islamic Obama—which fly in the face of his reluctance to embrace the Arab spring—have caused mischief in Egypt, helping prompt anti-Islamic activists to try and bombard Clinton with tomatoes when she visited Egypt. And why would Abedin have married a Jewish congressman? The answer, at least for those who like to engage in fevered thinking on the Right, is simple: What if he secretly converted to Islam? So maybe Weiner, who has always been staunchly pro-Israel, was just using that as a cover? Welcome to the world of the right-wing conspiracist.

Nothing is too loopy for Bachmann, who is standing by her allegations about Abedin. She sees a Muslim American threat everywhere. Here she is speaking a few weeks ago to a radio talk-show host:

It appears that there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood. It appears that there are individuals who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who have positions, very sensitive positions, in our Department of Justice, our Department of Homeland Security, potentially even in the National Intelligence Agency.

Potentially? Anything is potential. The sun might not rise tomorrow. The surprising thing is not how ubiquitous a threat exists from Muslim Americans but how little danger they pose. Bachmann and her ilk would be ecstatic if a serious one really existed. Instead, they are reduced to fighting phantasms. Along the way they are engaging in the very kind of conspiratorial thinking they claim they are exposing.

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsCongress

Here Comes Dick Cheney Again

Jacob Heilbrunn

If you can't keep a good man down, as the saying goes, then why should Dick Cheney—who regards himself as a better man than most—refrain from injecting himself into contemporary foreign-affairs debates? From the outset of the Obama presidency, Cheney, who visited the American Enterprise Institute, among other places, to issue dire warnings about the president's failure to safeguard the homeland from foreign bad guys, has made no secret of his belief that only the hardnosed policies he espoused during the Bush years are adequate. Now Cheney is making the rounds on Capitol Hill to warn against any impending defense budget cuts.

But does Cheney have the crediblity to warn about defense cuts? Only if you think that the torture policies he espoused were, to borrow a phrase from Oliver North, a neat idea. Only if you thought, or continue to think, that invading Iraq was a good idea. Only if you think that American military might, in other words, can turn the Middle East into a democracy on the Jeffersonian order overnight.

If some nagging doubts remain on this score, however, then Cheney's visit may not seem like the return of a solon to Washington, DC, but something else. It might seem like the act of a wretched, vain, petty man whose real concern, all along, has not been as much with the country's welfare as with scoring political points. Fortunately, as the Los Angeles Times observes, Cheney's act has worn rather thin. He may have met Senate Republicans at a luncheon on Tuesday. And he may be meeting with other top GOP leaders in the evening. But he can only preach to the already converted.

Cheney's adjurations no longer carry weight. One reason is that he specialized in apocalyptic warnings. Another, of course, is the Iraq fiasco. And yet another is that George W. Bush himself put Cheney on ice during the last two years of his administration, refusing to issue a full pardon to Scooter Libby. But it's also the case that, as the White House is reminding everyone, Cheney himself once famously declared that deficits don't matter. But as the American public seems to realize, he's wrong. They do matter. That the military should be held sacrosanct, exempt from any cuts, is untenable. The budget cannot be balanced without cuts that include it.

Now that the Pentagon faces sequestration unless a budget deal is reached, however, Republican hawks are scrambling to try and subvert the very accord that they reached with Obama. Meanwhile, the Democrats are announcing that they're ready to let all tax cuts lapse unless the GOP proves more accommodating on the issue of raising taxes on the wealthy. The perfect storm is developing. Perhaps it will impel both sides to reach a deal, to reform the tax code. Perhaps.

The more likely scenario is that some last-ditch temporary deal will be reached. But the attempts of Cheney to warn piously about the danger of subjecting the military to cuts rings hollow. If a deal is reached—and it should be—it won't because Cheney helped create one. It will be in spite of him. The last thing Republicans should be doing in an election year, of all years, is embracing the vice president who most epitomizes what went wrong during the Bush years. Instead, they should repudiate a man who breathes contempt for the very democratic virtues he purports to want to spread across the world.

Image: Gage Skidmore

TopicsDomestic Politics

Why Doesn't Mitt Romney Love Dick Cheney?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Today, Mitt Romney will travel to the Teton Pines country club and a $30,000 per couple dinner at the home of former vice president Dick Cheney. The Washington Post says that it will amount to a passing of the torch from one of the leading members of the George W. Bush administration to Romney. But Romney's relationship with both George W. Bush and Cheney is farught with ambiguity, though he has referred to the latter as a "person"—Cheney would surely have used the noun "man"—of wisdom and judgment," words that Romney does not appear to have applied to the former president.

It could hardly be otherwise—and it points to one of the difficulties Romney faces as he tries to unseat President Obama. Obama has repeatedly tried to tie Romney to the Bush era, arguing that America has already tried the economic policies Romney is espousing and they failed miserably. Add in two wars launched by the Bush administration, and you have an American public that continues to take a dim view of the Bush presidency. The halo that retroactively surrounds a number of modern presidencies—Bill Clinton's stock, for example, has been steadily rising, partly because of the mishaps of his two successors—has not begun to circumvallate the Bush presidency. Quite the contrary.

Which is why the question of whether or not Romney would represent a reversion to the Bush-era foreign policy is acquiring a new prominence. The Post piece is symptomatic of attempts to divine just where Romney stands. It scrutinizes the Cheney dinner to ask whether officials from the Bush administration are successfully infiltrating the Romney campaign:

Many Cheney allies who shaped policy in the Bush years — including Lewis I. “Scooter” Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, John C. Yoo and David Addington — have no roles in the Romney campaign. Nor do many senior foreign policy figures from that period, such as Condoleezza Rice, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Colin L. Powell, Robert M. Gates and Stephen J. Hadley — although Hadley endorsed Romney in April and Rice spoke at Romney’s donor retreat last month.

But it also is the case that a number of neocons are advisers to Romney—so many that the Nation is not implausibly calling it Romney's neocon war cabinet. So, much head-scratching has ensued: Does Romney really mean it when he says that Russia is America's number-one foe? Is he prepared to take China to the World Court on the day he enters office? And would he bomb the ayatollahs back to the stone age? Or is it all a sop to the neocons?

Hence the fascination with the Cheney powwow. But perhaps the deeper relationship is between Romney and George H. W. Bush. The old man has been overtly enthusiastic about Romney, while the most his son managed to blurt out was "I'm for Mitt Romney" before ducking into an elevator, which is almost like saying, "I'm not against Mitt Romney." Small wonder that Romney kept mum when Bush made his unofficial endorsement. There may be a little intramural tension inside the Bush family as well. Forty-one likely sees Romney as his true disciple, a successor, who can rectify what forty-three bungled. So the question that continues to loom over Romney as he pals around with Cheney today is whether he can return the GOP to its more moderate, realist origins. Or whether he even wants to.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

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